According to Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, 2015 will be his finest season yet. “I am making progress…it’s getting better. I’m feeling wonderful,” the recovering ball-carrier said in an official press conference held on Friday.
All eyes have been on Foster since Aug. 7, little more than a month ago, when the surgery to repair his muscle-to-bone groin injury took place. Not long ago, there was speculation that the Texans would be forced to shelf their offensive centerpiece on injured reserve and go without him until midway through the season. Now, in a stunning turn of events, with the timetable for Foster’s return advanced considerably, the conversation has shifted.
The Houston Chronicle’s Aaron Wilson reported that the time until Foster’s projected comeback date could be cut in half:
Before 2010’s leading rusher faced the setback, his aspirations for the year were high. "I think this is going to be my best year and I still feel like it will be," he said. Now, with more time on the field, it very well may be.
Of course, there’s more at stake here than just Foster’s pride. The success of the Texans’ season, at least offensively, just short of hinges upon his return. In order for the team to make the playoff leap it so narrowly missed in its previous 9-7 campaign, it is virtually imperative that the seventh-year player put together a career year.
The arguments discrediting the possibility of the Pro Bowler succeeding this season have already been and will continue to be made. Foster, who recently turned 29, is entering a period of decline for all athletes, particularly at his position in his sport. There is a belief that his laundry list of injuries is too insurmountable to overcome and, in short time, will sneak back up again.
It seems, however, for now at least, he’s up to the task. Outspoken about his undrafted status since entering the league, Foster has always maintained that, while unfortunate, the circumstances of his journey have aided his growth.
“You can’t tell if you’re a good captain of a ship on clear waters. It’s the same thing in life,” he said. “Time in and time out I’ve gone through a lot of hardships, and bad things have happened, but it’s who you are when you come up out of that.”
Sports are competitions of passion, after all. Perhaps more than half of the battle for Foster is getting his mind right, which, by his own account at Friday’s conference, he has already done. Willpower and determination have been credited with greater victories than simply accelerating a Houston running back’s recovery, and they could certainly be enough to justify a marked improvement in his play.
For those who are less convinced by the power of mind over matter and the self-fulfilling prophecy, however, here are five legitimate reasons why Foster will be making good on his claims this season.
1. Texans’ Strength of Schedule
The path of least resistance might be less noble, but it certainly can be helpful.
According to CBSSports.com’s John Breech, the Houston Texans will be facing the third-easiest lineup of teams over the 16-game stretch. This season’s opponents finished with a combined record of 106-148-2 (.417 winning percentage) in 2014, and while the summer traditionally brings about great overhaul and could alter those figures, it’s safe to expect that, generally speaking, the Texans won’t be facing too many perennial Super Bowl contenders.
The reasoning here is as intuitive as it seems. Easier contests will help keep games in the Texans’ wheelhouse. With the defense holding the opposition to low scores, Houston can continue to steadily feed Foster the ball.
Forcing quarterback Brian Hoyer into any sort of shootout, comeback situation or high-scoring affair will not only lower the Texans’ chances at victory but decrease Foster’s productivity. It's better to allow the running back to resume his role as the conduit through which all of Houston’s offense runs—something that is much more easily achieved against less talented teams.
2. Second Year in Bill O’Brien’s System
The Texans, with the exception of some new additions, have had a year (and then some) to absorb second-year head coach Bill O’Brien’s offensive system. The first year under the new regime saw a marked improvement from 2-14 to 9-7 (although the former record was the result of too many factors to count). It’s reasonable to assume that, with a season under their belt, players will have an even better grasp of the system and will continue to elevate their game.
It’s already begun to have a positive impact on Foster’s play. For any number of reasons, in 2014 (4.8), the running back was the closest to approaching the yards-per-carry average he posted in 2010 (4.9) for the first time in four years.
In order for Foster, the central cog in the larger Texans offensive machine, to be successful, it’s crucial that everyone, from Hoyer to the somewhat revamped offensive line, perform at a consistently high level. A year of familiarity and experience should go a long way to making that possible.
3. Diversity of Weapons
When all eyes are trained on the same target, at least someone is bound to hit it.
Consequently, having multiple, quality offensive options is the goal of every NFL team, but for many years, the Texans relied on very few. While this practice inflated each individual’s own scoring or yardage totals, it also made the fight for those statistics a steep, uphill climb.
This season, however, Houston boasts some real depth in what may be its best top-to-bottom receiving corps in franchise history. Together with consistent tight end Garrett Graham, these pass-catchers, including DeAndre Hopkins, Cecil Shorts III, Nate Washington and Jaelen Strong, function in a mutually beneficial cycle of success with Foster that goes beyond helping the Texans succeed.
By acting as on-field decoys for the running back and drawing extra defenders as far away from the line of scrimmage as possible, these receivers allow Foster to benefit from considerably fewer defenders on his tail. On the flip side, the threat of Foster means that defenders will eventually leave a receiver open enough to make a play, and so the cycle goes on.
The more threats to the defense that are present, the greater the chance of Foster’s success, and this season he’ll find himself sharing the field with more variety of talent.
4. FB Jay Prosch and TE C.J. Fiedorowicz
The greatest gift one could give a running back with as patient a running style as Foster is some exceptional lead blocking. While members of the Texans offensive line such as left tackle Duane Brown have been terrific at making way for No. 23, former Houston fullback Vontae Leach had the greatest impact on the then-emerging Foster’s play.
While running behind Leach, Foster exploded for 1,616 yards in his breakout 2010 season, averaging a career-high 4.9 yards per carry. It wasn’t until playing with rookie fullback Jay Prosch a year ago that he approached that yards-per-carry mark again (4.8).
Whether Prosch had none, everything or some level in between to do with Foster’s rebounded success, another year of experience and continued play together certainly won’t make things worse. Add to that the presence of big-bodied, second-year tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, who has made big improvements from last season, according to HoustonTexans.com’s Drew Dougherty, and Foster could be seeing running lanes galore (to say nothing of all the early, devastating hits he could avoid taking).
5. More RB Depth Support
Foster’s statistics may have found greater benefit from serving as the Texans’ lone talented back (as opposed to being paired with a sidekick such as Ben Tate), but his health depends on no longer being asked to shoulder the weight alone.
|Foster's Yards/Carry With and Without Tate|
|With Tate as a Teammate||Without Tate as a Teammate|
|4.4 (2011)||4.8 (2009)|
|4.1 (2012)||4.9 (2010)|
|4.5 (2013)||4.8 (2014)|
Perhaps another explanation for the falling yards-per-carry average is the sheer number of times Foster has toted the rock.
The magic number of carries for Foster is somewhere in the range of 18-20 per game. When not given enough opportunities, his production doesn’t quite kick in, but when overplayed, he gets bogged down (and faces a greater risk of injury).
|Foster's Yards/Carry Vs. Carries/Game|
|Year||Yards/Carry||Approx. Number of Carries/Game|
The presence of fellow running backs Alfred Blue, Chris Polk and Jonathan Grimes should help Foster meet and stay firmly within that quota, even if some of his numbers take a dip in the process.
After all, staying on the field, after only successfully playing a full season twice in his career, should be Foster’s first priority.
Although the year seems to hold real promise for Foster, he still has a ways to go before putting it all together.
"It's going to be tough because I'm going to have some ground to make up, but I was feeling the best, feeling the quickest that I felt. You can judge for yourself,” he said.
It’s extraordinarily likely that many will.